Let me try and unlock the meaning of Dialectical Materialism in one page. This theory is a key building block of Marxism explaining Marx’s attitude to history, the nature of human existence and why socialism through revolution is (almost) inevitable – or at least necessary.
OK – let’s kick off with dialectics. And I’ll keep it simple. We should start by popping back to ancient Greece and all those philosophers trying to uncover underlying truths about the world. What made the Greeks so unique compared to other civilisations was their willingness to define the world in terms of natural phenomenon as opposed to the whims of deities.
Their method of discourse – over an agreeable goblet of wine – was to come at each other with differing opinions. Through reasoned argument, if sometimes heated, they would hope to arrive at something approaching the truth. This was hugely liberating if sometimes viewed as dangerous by those in authority. Poor Socrates, for example, was forced to drink deadly poison for the crime of corrupting the youth.
It can be argued that scientists adopt a dialectical method when they posit a new theory and invite their peers to review it – shooting it down if necessary. Theories in science are the basis for practical outcomes but eventually give way to superior theories that take human knowledge to a new and higher level.
The German philosopher Hegel, who exercised a huge influence on the young Marx, came up with the idea of successive dialectic triads. What he meant by this was that a “thesis” would be put forward. Against it would be an opposing “antithesis”. And this would lead to a “synthesis”. But then the synthesis would become a new thesis to be overthrown as it were. And so this would go on and on.
Hegel viewed this entirely as a battle of ideas raging through human history as a quest for ultimate truth. What was once viewed positively becomes a negative. Every synthesis contains within it the seeds of its own destruction as it becomes a thesis to be overthrown by an antithesis and succeeded by a new, higher synthesis.
Traditionally, logicians didn’t much like contradiction. But dialecticians embrace contradiction with enthusiasm. They believe that opposing ideas can exist at the same time and the clash of these ideas creates progress.
So how did Marx approach dialectics? His decisive move was to reject the Hegelian method that viewed dialectical progress as a battle of ideas. Instead, Marx saw the dialectics in human history as a struggle between different social classes. Sure there were ideas – but these were reflections of material realities.
He took key dialectical concepts and applied them in new ways. So, in dialectical thinking you have the idea that quantity can transform in to quality (I’ll explain this more in my blog posts). Marx explained how feudalism or capitalism could initially take humanity forward but would then be constrained by their own inner contradictions.
When the social structure of a society could no longer grow the “productive forces”, it was time to break with that society. The ruling class as the thesis would be confronted by a highly disgruntled antithesis in the form of the exploited class. And the resulting clash would create a new synthesis – that in turn would be challenged at some point.